This is a fabulous book, beautiful, generous, sombre and wise, a wistful romance about a man writing a book like Always Crashing in the Same Car. Don’t fall for that subtitle – a mere concession to academic access and what used to be called the zeitgeist. As if a book as good as this can really be expected to flourish. As if, even in LA, there is a crowd waiting for a meditation on Tuesday Weld, let alone Eleanor Perry, Carole Eastman, Warren Zevon or Renata Adler. These are figures from our cultural past, but they are also characters, bystanders, torn posters looking down on Matthew Specktor’s family circle. His book is in some ways a work of critical commentary, as mind-expanding as a perfect peach (eat it now – by tomorrow it may be going off). But it is also a novel posing as a memoir, with scenes so gentle that the foreboding takes a second or so to creep in: ‘Autumn in Los Angeles is a kind of shrivelling, a contraction not just of time, the daylight hours, but of possibility. Everything grows more chromatic: the late sunshine, the shop windows, the cars. And then evening arrives like an orange rolling off a table.’ Or this. Someone who may or may not be Specktor is on a date with Q, a television writer:
We sat for three and a half hours, after which I kissed her on the street as she leaned against a streetlamp.
‘I’m seeing someone else,’ she said. The air around us was halogen-rich, glowing. She leaned forward to kiss me again. ‘I don’t think I like him very much.’
Do you see how perilously an author can find himself in a scene with Tuesday Weld?
Let’s try to be cool and explanatory. Specktor was born in 1966, a year before Bonnie and Clyde; he will have been eight when Chinatown appeared, and ten or so when David Bowie recorded the song that gives this book its title. Specktor’s mother was a screenwriter whose career was short-lived; later she was a drinker who snarled at her son for asking her to stop. By then she was divorced from his father, who was a leading talent agent at CAA. Despite this disconcerting inheritance, Specktor himself did some work in the narrative industry, though he was more beguiled by what he thought of as ‘writing’ – the misbegotten impulse that has made this book so enticing. It was inevitable, given his background, that he would be drawn to Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist for whom Hollywood was the nemesis he needed. You understand that, no matter the phantom of success and splendour that Fitzgerald endured, his destiny was the swimming pool that awaits Gatsby, or the vanishing of Dick Diver at the close of Tender Is the Night.
Specktor starts his book with a comic-scary photomat picture of Fitzgerald spooking the camera, staring into his abyss. In the introduction, we get the outline of Specktor’s own broken life, with a wife, N, lost to another man, R; his mother a cancer case; his father armoured in success. All this is folded into a fond autopsy of Fitzgerald, and a first, melancholic LA rhapsody. ‘What do you do, Dad?’ his three-year-old daughter asks him on one of her sleepovers. ‘I make things up,’ he decides. The moment trembles on the edge of cute, but it works in the drifty reach of Specktor’s introduction, as he roams LA seeking the locations of Fitzgerald’s sad time there.
Would it have consoled him to know, after these years of obscurity – like the booksellers he visited, even the studio heads who hired him sometimes needed to be reminded, first, he was still alive – that his work would outlive him? Probably not. What is the point of being loved in absentia? And what is the point of loving someone else who is missing? What is the point of loving the air?
There’s the clue, the hushed warning that literary posterity cannot save a culture or guard a great writer against Dorothy Parker’s insight, looking into Fitzgerald’s casket in 1940: ‘Poor son of a bitch.’
In the rest of this book, this elegy to failure, Specktor will deliver essays on some of the lives and losses he has been captivated by, held under the sway of people who were never exactly there. There’s a moment’s misgiving as we wonder if this is a set-up for pure puffery. Don’t fret: the peaches are all from the same tree, with secrets about creative careers piercing the reverie of what it has been to be Matthew Specktor, ever yearning and searching for ‘success’, knowing all the while that the swimming pool was waiting. The book is not reliable as biography, but the lives discussed did not organise themselves around facts, or any thought that these people knew what was happening to them. We know the scenario is evolving out of reach. We make stuff up.
Eleanor Rosenfeld was an older woman. She had a husband and a partnership in writing plays. Then, in her early forties, she determined to break free, so she hooked up with a guy sixteen years her junior, Frank Perry, who wanted to be a film director. They had a few years of activity together in the 1960s. She wrote and he directed: David and Lisa, The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife. They were in the money and the awards, and they were married. Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays (1970) came into view as a project. Rosenfeld didn’t much like the book or its numb heroine, Maria Wyeth, but she realised in any case that she was being dropped – Perry had another beloved in view. Didion and her husband ended up writing the script instead. Despite the casting of Tuesday Weld as Maria, the picture didn’t work – Rosenfeld’s instinct had been right. She wrote a novel about what had happened, Blue Pages (1979), the best thing she ever did. Have you heard of it? I know, you can’t eat every peach.
Specktor appreciates Rosenfeld – he sees how well she did with the far-fetched parable of John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, with Burt Lancaster as a burned-out Wasp crawling his way across the backyard swimming pools of rural Connecticut (the athletic Burt could not swim) – but he is entranced by the elusive Carole Eastman, who is still a legend among eighty-year-old screenwriters, even if Five Easy Pieces (1970), that rueful study of male despair, is her only complete work. Eastman had been an actress at first, and you feel throughout Specktor’s book the pressure on so many of these bystanders to act out, to play themselves, so that they can hope to correct their bad takes more easily.
When Specktor looked through Eastman’s papers he discovered a stranger writer than he had imagined: moody, wordy, full of self-doubt, so involved with Jeanne Moreau that you wonder what happened between them. She had one other big credit, The Fortune (1975), which has passed into history as a failure, buried beneath the weight of Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, such pals that no one trusted anyone. Specktor admits that he is ‘unabashedly in love’ with Eastman (as if ‘unabashedly’ was a decent trope of sincerity), and I think that’s because in life and in Hollywood, possibility is the most touching thing – and the thing that can have you waiting by the phone for months. Specktor doesn’t mention it, but Eastman also wrote the dialogue for Model Shop (1969), the Jacques Demy film in which Anouk Aimée’s disenchanted Lola, the title character in Demy’s movie of eight years earlier, comes to LA. It’s not a good movie; perhaps Eastman was aspiring to French attitudes, or shrugs. Specktor does mention that, later on, Eastman went seventeen years between credits, the pause during which her legend bloomed.
It’s part of Specktor’s generosity to rescue those who are being forgotten. Not that I can believe he would write about anyone he didn’t love, probably without knowing them, just having them perpetually on the screen. He starts off on Thomas McGuane – ‘I wanted so badly to be like him’ – with a photograph of the handsome sportsman author. It was that image that got him, before he read Panama and Ninety-Two in the Shade. McGuane isn’t natural casting as a failure. He is a classic writer, in the old Esquire tradition, a lesser James Salter, and a dedicated ladies’ man. Specktor’s chapter on him turns into a synopsis for a screwball movie with its account of the filming of what became 92 in the Shade (1975).
McGuane and his first wife, Becky, lived in glamorously wild places – Montana and the Florida Keys – but as he started to film 92 in the Shade he was into a freefall passion with the actress Elizabeth Ashley. As if a space had become free, one of the film’s stars, Warren Oates, had a fling with Becky, though she ended up marrying its other star, Peter Fonda. And then McGuane saw Margot Kidder. It’s like a libertarian Bonnie and Clyde – ‘we rob banks,’ without quite needing the money – and the mood is vital to the 1970s: the people to love faithfully are those you never quite have.
Cue Tuesday Weld. Specktor quotes someone saying that if she had settled for being ‘Susan’ Weld (her given name), she might have been seen as a great actress. But if that’s so, then how did anyone as smart as she is not go back to that respectable name? Maybe she preferred to be a cult instead of becoming Meryl Streep or whoever. Dumped on by her mother (that was her story), Weld was so precocious it was alarming. ‘I didn’t have to play Lolita; I was Lolita,’ she said – and she had been up for that part, examined by Stanley Kubrick and Vladimir Nabokov, who seemed to guess she was dangerous.
You can decide that Weld never made a flawless film, or one that honours her attention, though Lord Love a Duck, Pretty Poison and Thief are in the running. She became a Circe sought out by every conscientious Odysseus, married famous men (Dudley Moore and the violinist Pinchas Zukerman), and at this point has been retired somewhere for nearly twenty years. But she is a phenomenon when it suits her and I’m sorry Specktor doesn’t mention her turn as Zelda in a TV movie, Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (1975). It has heartbreaking moments, not just in themselves but for the regret we are left with about what else Weld might have done.
I’d guess she is nicely discontented. Specktor picks up on a moment from the Dick Cavett Show where she argues with Milton Berle, an ancient comic. They’re talking about Orson Welles, with whom Weld had just worked – A Safe Place (1971), one of her duds. In his inflatable way, Berle says that surely Welles must love acting. But Weld won’t have it: ‘I think he doesn’t even like himself for liking to act. I’ve never met an actor – an older actor – who was happy with himself, and his life.’ I told you she was smart.
You mustn’t conclude from my tabling of the contents that this book is all Vanity Fair. In retracing these failed famous careers, Specktor lets drop anecdotes from his own circle. The Weld rapture begins with a friend, D, calling him on the phone: ‘Have you seen her, Freak? … I mean have you seen her?’ And then D ends up dead, falling off a building. Just imagine what the film of Play It As It Lays might have been if for three minutes Weld had ignored the script and the subdued looming of Mother Didion, and just been funnier and smarter than Milton Berle. Never happened, but keep it in mind.
Next up is the musician and songwriter Warren Zevon, hands down the nastiest guy in the book, so antisocial he was often called violent, especially towards women. McGuane once said of him that he was ‘a kind of lost child. But because he’s such a prickly complicated person, he’s not the kind of lost child you give a hug.’ Fair enough, Specktor says: ‘I won’t hug his corpse either.’ But he is smitten with the rackety self-destruction of Zevon’s life (terrified of doctors, dying all too young), and cherishes the howling poetry of his lyrics. The Q whom Specktor kissed had once been involved with Zevon, and Specktor asked her: ‘Did you ever forgive him?’ She looks at him and ponders, like a Tuesday Weld close-up: ‘I never thought of it that way.’
Specktor had enough time with Q to dream about her being with Zevon. That unmade movie. He and his acquaintances are always on the couch, in the analysis that is script development. ‘The person you are,’ he writes, ‘and the person you wish to be … There is a gap between these things, just as there is between the person you love and the one you merely hope to. In a strange way, the latter can, sometimes, be harder even to lose.’
The book falters in what comes next, the chapter shared by two directors, Hal Ashby and Michael Cimino. (I think Specktor realises that directors have lost their juice now.) Ashby is someone whose work you know better than you can place him – Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There. Cimino is an exemplary disaster: after the abrupt coup of The Deer Hunter, he was allowed to make Heaven’s Gate and thus dragged down United Artists with him. Having two targets distracts Specktor and I regretted that he had too little space for Cimino, who went on to publish novels in France which have never been translated into English. One of them, Big Jane, is ‘the story of a six-and-a-half feet tall female motorcycle enthusiast who escapes the dullness of 1950s Long Island to fight in the Korean War’. Tell us more. Cimino had deep strains of the fake in him: he lied a lot, but in LA, lies are allowed, or just forgiven and reappraised as word of mouth.
Another problem with this chapter is that it muffles the cut straight from the appalling if endearing Zevon to Renata Adler, who might have been written by Elaine May. Adler was briefly a film critic long ago; she is the author of two icily poised but arresting novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark. She was never an LA person. She sort of closed down her own career when in 1980, in the New York Review of Books, she published an 8000-word demolition of Pauline Kael, a more important and valuable film critic than anyone else in sight. It isn’t that Kael didn’t deserve some comeuppance, and she had walked off her own plank by going out to LA (she couldn’t drive!) to produce or counsel Warren Beatty and James Toback. Nobody said Kael was smart: brilliant, yes, but out of line silly or desirous. Like anyone patient enough to read 8000 words on Kael’s prose, Adler seemed shocked by the aggression in what she had done. She is alive still somewhere in the East, undiminished. Yet that isn’t quite plausible; you feel she ought to be holed up in a comped suite in Las Vegas, playing three-dimensional solitaire with gangsters and sheikhs. Specktor went to lunch with Adler once and the book has a sublime photo he took of a plastic tabletop in a desolate diner in Connecticut, with a tub of French fries and Adler’s languid and plainly brilliant elbow cocked in the background. We want more of her, just as we deserve a fuller accounting of the narcissistic death trip taken by Michael Cimino.
Something may have urged Specktor to try a little uplift at the end of the book. He comes across as a kind man, to the point of tenderness – the softness that spoiled things for Jake Gittes in Chinatown and made Nicholson an older actor. Specktor’s life has worked out better than Jake’s – he may be shrugging off his spectral glow. His daughter is grown up and he has a second wife. He’s so amiable he could be the one person who buys this happy ending. But when he can’t sleep he goes out for a night drive on the freeway trails pioneered by Maria Wyeth. He may head up to Mulholland Drive and its dirt section before it hits the ocean. From that height he imagines he can see us, sleeping, waiting for his book.